Conflict Issue Looms Over Council Race

BERLIN – One candidate for the vacant Berlin Council District 1 seat is feeling some heat from fellow Berliners over potential conflict of interest issues, but he says that he does not see the same problem.

Developer Troy Purnell is running against Phil Cropper and former mayor and town council member Rex Hailey for the open town council seat vacated by Gee Williams, who was elevated from council member to mayor in the recent election. Purnell has run into some opposition based on his professional career as a developer in Berlin and his potential business dealings with the town.

Resident Marge Coyman, who unsuccessfully ran for the District 1 council seat in 2006, has contacted the Maryland Attorney General’s office seeking advice on the legality of Purnell’s run for the town council seat.

In her letter, Coyman references Purnell’s multiple developments in progress and discussions between Purnell and the town over wastewater facility sharing and annexation of substantial property on the border of the town.

“All of his developments could or will be affected by decisions made by the Town Council, the Planning Department, the Berlin Utilities Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Historic District Commission. Historically he actively represents his interests at all of these levels of town government,” she wrote.

The state ethics committee confirmed that Purnell may legally run for office and sit on the town council, Coyman said.

“Unfortunately there is no way of preventing somebody from running for office,” said Coyman. “It’s really up to the constituents to recognize this person will really not be able to represent them.”

While he expected some discussion of his business interests during the campaign, Purnell said this week he thought it would be milder.

“I didn’t expect it to be so vehement,” Purnell said. “Until there is a violation or an alleged violation, this is not an issue, bottom line.”

At Tuesday’s forum, the candidates were asked whether they would have to excuse themselves from any issue before the council. Hailey said, “no.” Cropper said, “I have no conflicts of interest. I can vote on all issues.”

Purnell responded, “The fact I’m a businessman with interests in the town should not disqualify me from running for office,” pointing to his 20 years of experience on town and county planning boards as evidence that he knows ethics laws and when to bow out.

Berlin’s ethics law, which includes some broad provisions, should not disqualify him from too many discussions and votes if elected, Purnell said. After going through the past year’s council agendas, he said he would only have had to recuse himself from agenda items where he would be sitting in front of the town council to request some action from the town directly.

The Berlin code lists nine situations in which a town elected or appointed official, or staff, would have a conflict of interest. Four could possibly apply to Purnell, given his business interests:

“1) Participate on behalf of the Town in any matter which would have a direct financial impact on tem, their spouse or dependent child or a business entity with which they are affiliated…4) Hold any outside employment relationship that would impair their impartiality or independence of judgment…8) Use the prestige of their office for their own benefit or that of another…9) Use confidential information acquired in their official town position for their own benefit or that of another,” it reads.

“It doesn’t seem possible to me that he will be able to actively participate in our council’s responsibilities with all of the possible conflicts of interest,” said Coyman. “There are so many important things coming before the council that need to be addressed.”

Zoning, wastewater and historic district issues could have an impact on Purnell’s business interests, Coyman said.

“If he has to recuse himself from all of these, I’m not having somebody represent me or our district. He’s just keeping the seat warm,” said Coyman. “I don’t think he should run. It’s very inappropriate.”

The town would be better off, Coyman felt, with Purnell attending meetings and speaking up as a citizen.

While one voice would be taken out of the discussion if he had to recuse himself, Purnell said that there were many other voices in town aside from the council that should be part of discussions of the town’s future.

Concern over Purnell’s influence, if elected, over town departments and commissions also motivated Coyman, who is uneasy over simply the appearance of influence.

“I don’t feel it’s to the advantage of the town or District 1 to have somebody with millions of dollars on the line based on council decisions sitting on that council. I can’t see how that works,” said Coyman.

Townsfolk will have to trust the integrity and honesty he has demonstrated over a lifetime, Purnell said.

“I’m going to deal with the situation in a forthright manner,” he said.